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Chinese History - The Xiongnu

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The Xiongnu 匈奴

Han Dynasty


The Xiongnu Tribes or the Xiongnu People (old: Hsiung-nu) are often identified with the Huns that invaded Europe in the 4th century and with the White Huns (Hephthalites) that invaded northeastern India. Although there might be similarities in the name of these two people, it must be considered that the name of a mighty nomad tribe (Mongols, Tartars) was often used for very different ethnic people. Pulleyblank has shown that the language of the Xiongnu - of which we possess some words and terms preserved in Chinese literature - was related to the Siberian ethnics (Samoyeds) in the River Yennisej area, and not to the Mongols or Turks, while the Hun hords of Attila that tried to conquer Europe were surely Proto-Turks. The own name of the Xiongnu might have been Hungnor or Hunoch, a word that Chinese people could neither pronounce nor write and hence created the Chinese word Hungnu (modern pronunciation [çjvŋnu], Wade-Giles: Hsiung-nu). The syllable "hu" like in Hu 胡 is often used for barbarian, i.e. non-Chinese people.

Life of the Xiongnu

The nomad tribes of the Xiongnu developed their power at the end of the Warring States period when the Chinese states were occupied by intensive wars against each other. During the following Qin Dynasty 秦 they still not seem to represent a danger for Chinese soil and people. Only at the begin of the 2nd century BC, when a chieftain named Modu 冒頓 (not: Maodun!; his original name might have been Bordur) made himself ruler (chanyu 單于, not danyu or shanyu! a term similar to the Turk-Mongol "Khan") over the Xiongnu tribes. The territory that was inhabited or roamed by the Xiongnu tribes stretched from the Ili Basin in the far west of modern China to the pastures of modern Mongolia. When the Xiongnu subjugated neighboring tribes, these were incorporated into the Xiongnu federation and took over the name of the Xiongnu although they might be of a very different ethnic. This custom was followed by all subsequent mighty steppe peoples that should dominate the Mongolian grasslands.

History of the Xiongnu

The contacts, diplomatical and economical, between the Chinese peasant culture and the nomad culture of the steppe people was very intensive - using the border markets (guanshi 關市) -, and Chinese historians are much better informed about the Xiongnu than the western antique writers about the Skythians and Huns. The economy of the Xiongnu was characterized by cattle breeding, especially horses that were used as war horses, transport medium and as a commercial item. They lived in large round tents (qionglu 穹廬; also known as yurt), their main food was meat, and their wine brewed of horse milk was famous. Later, the Xiongnu aristocracy lived in small palaces, and their villages were protected by walls. Archeologists have discovered many bronze and also iron tools, partially for military use, but also many items for daily use. The art of the Xiongnu is very different from the Chinese, although we also find Chinese objects among the tomb accessories. The entourage of the Shanyu consisted of officials of several degrees that were only partially copied from the Chinese central government system.
Under the Qin Dynasty when general Meng Tian 蒙恬 conquered some territories north of the Ordos river bend of the Yellow River and installed Jiuyuan 九原 commandery, the new settlers of this region (most of them were forced to resettle) had to be protected from the Xiongnu raids and plundering campaigns by fortified walls (known as the "Great Wall" 長城). After the downfall of Qin and the subsequent turbulent years of fight for the imperial power the Xiongnu advanced to each direction, subjugated their neighbors like the Yuezhi 月支 and Dingling 丁零 and invaded the region of modern Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei provinces. The efforts of emperor Han Gaozu 漢高祖 to repell the Xiongnu were effortless and lead to a policy of "peacful approachment" (heqin 和親) that was in fact nothing else than the delivery of tributes by the Chinese to appease the "plundering instinct" of the nomads. Actually, the provision of silk and other items of a highly sophisticated culture contributed to the "degeneration" of the barbarian character of the Xiongnu. Many Chinese princesses were given to the Xiongnu rulers. For the next few decades, the Xiongnu were able to expand their territory into modern Xinjiang and thereby controled the region of the later silkroad (Sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路). But during the same time, the power of the Han Dynasty 漢 stabilized, and the two realms of Xiongnu and China became rivals. Under the great emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 the Chinese generals Wei Qing 衛青 and Huo Qubing 霍去病 conquered the region of modern Gansu and opened the way to Inner Asia. In 60 BC the protectorate of the Western regions (Xiyu duhu 西域都護) was established, and the Chinese became masters of the trade routes to the west. Three years later the Xiongnu divided into a western and an eastern branch, the eastern ruler Huhanya 呼韓邪 surrendered to the Chinese in 51 BC, he was rewarded with a Chinese princess named Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 sent to his court, a famous story often retold and arranged like in the Yuan time theatre play "Autumn in the Han Palace" (Hangongqiu 漢宮秋).
At the begin of Later Han (Houhan 後漢) the Xiongnu divided into the southern tribes and the northern tribes. While the northern part of the Xiongnu federation roamed the grasslands north of the fortification walls, the southern Xiongnu became sedentate and settled down in the area of modern Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, side by side with Chinese inhabitants. Cao Cao 曹操, the potentate at the end of Han, forced a planful separation of the Xiongnu aristocracy from the Xiongnu people and thereby lead to the disappearing of the Xiongnu as part of the population of northern China. When the Jin Dynasty 晉 suffered under the power struggles of the various princes, the Xiongnu Liu Yao 劉曜 founded the Former Zhao (Qianzhao 前趙) empire, at the end of the 4th century the Xiongnu Helian Bobo 赫連勃勃 founded the Xia Dynasty 夏, both dynasties being one of the Sixteen Non-Chineses kingdoms of the north during the time of south-north division (Nanbeichao 南北朝). The northern Xiongnu tribes were defeated in 89 AD by the Han generals Dou Xian 竇憲 and Geng Bing 耿秉, and from now on the Xiongnu ceased to represent a military challenge for the Chinese empire. Some western scholars think the Xiongnu migrated to the west and reappeared in Eastern Europe as the Huns in the 4th century. From the 3rd century on the Mongolian grassland was occupied by a new challenging nomad people - the Xianbei 鮮卑.

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